What's happening in Venezuela is not a U.S. conspiracy

The large-scale protests that spurred opposition leader Juan Guaidó to swear himself in as interim president of Venezuela last week were not a coup attempt, nor an imperialist intervention by the United States, but an independent effort to restore democracy.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has resisted calls for him to step aside in the stand off. Tthe United States, Canada and other governments in the Western Hemisphere, including Brazil, Argentina, and Colombia, have all recognised Guaidó as interim president.

But as expected, Turkey joined Russia, China, and Iran, in putting its weight behind Maduro. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his supporters have enthusiastically stood by the embattled Maduro. The crisis in Venezuela has brought Turkey’s nationalists, leftists, and Islamists together in support of Maduro against what they see as U.S. interventionism.

But to see this as U.S. meddling in Latin America undervalues the opposition and understates its initiative.

Since February 2014, Venezuela has experienced a string of anti-government protests, called “La Salida” (“The Exit”), similar to Turkey’s nationwide anti-government Gezi protests in 2013.

Venezuela opposition activists say hundreds of people have been killed as a result of security forces using excessive force, while Maduro’s government accuses the opposition of trying to stage a coup with backing from Washington and has arrested opposition leaders on charges of inciting violence.

But in December 2015, opposition candidates won a landslide legislative election victory, giving them the majority in the country’s legislature for the first time in 16 years.

However, the opposition-led parliament has been dramatically weakened, first by the electoral council’s denial of the seats necessary for an absolute majority, next by the Supreme Court’s rejection of the authority of the legislative body, and finally by unconstitutional elections to establish a constituent assembly. Prominent members of the opposition have been threatened with jail, or have fled the country.

By the time of the May 2018 presidential election, the government had banned prominent candidates and political parties, and manipulated the electoral calendar to benefit the ruling party.

Faced with the threat to its survival posed by the opposition's 2015 victory, Maduro and his allies eliminated Venezuela’s remaining democratic instruments. They are well aware of the fact that a democratic transition would end in their imprisonment (or worse) on account of their political crimes, corruption, and drug trafficking.

Under these circumstances, the opposition largely disappeared in Venezuelan politics as a visible public and political force. Yet, with a smart domestic and an international strategy, the young opposition leader Guaidó has revived and fuelled hopes for desperate Venezuelans.

His move to become interim president marked a turning point in Venezuelan politics. This young leader managed to mobilise frustrated Venezuelans, including government supporters, fed up with rampant corruption, the abuse of power, and the dire humanitarian situation. He also made a great effort to gain widespread international recognition, not only from the Western Hemisphere, but also from Asia and Europe.

The future of Venezuela is unclear. It may return to democracy, or explode in violence. A peaceful solution to the crisis hinges on negotiations between the Maduro government and the opposition under the auspices of reliable mediators. While the recognition of Guaidó by many international actors puts the Maduro government in a difficult position, it also provides the opposition with an unprecedented bargaining chip at the negotiation table. At the very least, the crisis ought to push Maduro to adopt a more conciliatory tone against the opposition.

Opposing foreign intervention in Venezuela does not preclude criticism Maduro's role in suppression of the opposition, corruption and electoral fraud, nor should it prevent giving independent domestic and regional actors credit for their efforts to bring back democracy.

The Turkish opposition should drop its anti-imperialist narrative and stand by Guaidó, who is up against the same authoritarian challenges faced by opponents of the government in Turkey.

The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.